When Number Two Sells Better than Number One

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Why have a top brand when your second-best brand sells more of the same thing, repackaged?

This paradox brought to you by General Motors, the only car company that still has more than one “premium” brand. What’s inside the box, though, is mostly the same.

The first is Cadillac, the second is GMC.

They both sell many of the same vehicles, repackaged and re-priced. The Cadillac Escalade is a GMC Yukon – and both are actually repackaged and repriced Chevy Tahoes. The GMC Sierra is a remarketed Chevy Silverado.

And they sell better than their “Cadillac” labeled other-selves. Better than any other American-brand luxury vehicles, too.

It’s weird – but it makes sense. Bear with.

GMC is itself a legacy oddity of a time when GM’s various divisions – in the heyday, there were six of them, including Oldsmobile and Pontiac – sold different things. They were related things, of course, but there was difference enough between them to make the difference worth paying more – or less – for.

When you bought an Oldsmobile in 1970 you got an Oldsmobile – with an Oldsmobile-specific engine. Not just an Oldsmobile badge. When all people got was the badge, they stopped buying Oldsmobiles; also Pontiacs.

Ford dropped Mercury years ago. When it no longer made sense to sell Fords three different ways.

But GM still has four divisions (or rather, four rebranding/re-selling arms) and all of them together have a smaller market share now than Chevy, all by itself, had back in 1970s. Probably because GM continues to try to sell the same thing four different ways.

GMC used to be the GM division that sold heavier-duty trucks and utility/commercial vehicles until it morphed into a kind of quasi-Cadillac in the ’90s, when it began selling luxury under a different label. But it didn’t go the way of Olds and Pontiac.

Though Cadillac may.

Because Cadillac is no longer a luxury brand. Unless “luxury” is defined as embossing the seats of a Yukon/slash Tahoe with the wreath and crest. It just makes it a pricier Chevy/GMC.

This is insulting to the prospective buyer, who knows he will be paying more to get more or less the same. A slightly different shell. And a differently labeled plastic engine cover.

Cadillacs have the same engines as found in Chevys and Buicks – as well as GMCs.

The “new” (2021) “Cadillac” CT4 is powered by the same  basic 2.0 and 2.7 liter fours that have been powering Chevys like the Camaro . . . and the Silverado pick-up, even. The XT6 crossover has the Camaro’s optional 3.6 V6 and is basically a repackaged Buick Enclave/ChevyTraverse/GMC Acadia.

When you go to a Mercedes dealership you don’t find something less than Mercedes under the hood.

But the long-view problem for Cadillac – and luxury labels generally, including even Mercedes – is that the label no longer means as much as it used to. Because luxury has been made standard, regardless of label.

It’s true there are still cars that haven’t got quilted Nappa leather seats with built-in massagers and 18 speaker surround sound audio systems. But it is also true that every new car comes standard with air conditioning, power windows and locks and – almost all of them – a stereo system that would have been regarded as high-end back when Cadillac meant something.

And economy meant something else.

Today, there are “entry level” cars  – in terms of what they cost – but the least of them comes standard with more than used to be optional in Cadillacs, once upon a time. Of course, once upon those times, Cadillacs also had something else to offer, which was size – both the vehicle itself and what was under the hood.

Cadillacs were GM’s biggest vehicles and had the biggest engines in GM’s inventory, including – at the apogee, circa the early-mid 1970s – massive 8 liter V8s that you had to buy a Cadillac to get. You couldn’t get them in a Chevy or a Buick or an Olds . . . or a GMC.

Which made aspiring to Cadillac ownership a desirable thing and actually owning one an enviable thing, because you had something (here it comes) different.

Not just a different label – and maybe a differently shaped plastic-chromed grille.

Today, that’s more or less what you get.

Cadillacs sells SUVs the same size as other GM branded SUVs, with the same size engines. It hardly makes sedans at all – literally. The XTS and CT6 – its largest recent sedans – are no-longer-sold sedans. Which leaves the 2021 CT5 as the biggest – and biggest engined – sedan that Cadillac still sells.

It is a Camry-sized sedan – just 193.8 inches end to end (a Camry is 192.7 inches long overall) and comes standard with a smaller (2.0 liter) engine – the same engine that comes standard in various other-label GM vehicles.

Once upon a time, a Cadillac meant something named Eldorado or Sedan deVille. You got something more than you got anywhere else for your money.

Including at your GMC store.

. . .

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38 COMMENTS

  1. GM’s brand structure is indeed a holdover from back when each “division” had the market share of an entire automaker nowadays. The problem is, while they’ve trimmed brands, they haven’t really adjusted the remaining brands from where they were before, and furthermore, their “brand ladder” has actually suffered from some degree of vertical compression.

    The problem starts with Cadillac. To their credit, they have applied GM’s historically-strong and vastly-underappreciated engineering prowess very well in terms of how the vehicles drive, and their styling is on point as well. Beyond that, however, things fall apart – the engines (undifferentiated from those elsewhere in GM’s lineup) lack the traditional Cadillac refinement, and occasionally some “Chevy thrift” (to quote Car and Driver) will poke through somewhere. On top of which, the brand suffered for many years under bigwigs (including an outright Audi transplant who thought he could bring success at Cadillac by turning it into an American Audi) who tried to out-German the Germans without really understanding how the Germans got to where they were and how Cadillac’s position differed – replacing time-honored names with meaningless and ever-changing alphanumeric gibberish, forcing a racing pedigree from the top down, and so on. This was topped off with an abortive attempt at moving HQ to New York City to be more in tune with… something or other, because obviously the least driver-friendly place in the US is a good place to headquarter an organization dedicated to designing and producing automobiles.

    Then we move down to Buick. More than a Chevy, less than a Cadillac, yadda yadda. It seems to be recovering OKishly from its “geriatricar” phase, but I’m staring to wonder – based only on pictures of recent Buick interiors, mind you, since I haven’t driven any recent Buicks nor Cadillacs – if its cars haven’t become “nice” enough for Buick and Cadillac to start making each other redundant. Subjectively, it still feels like there’s a difference in positioning, but objectively, I can’t quite put my finger on what makes a Cadillac “more” than a Buick anymore, other than than the name and a higher probability of being RWD. Someone better informed than I would have to explain it.

    Then there’s Chevy, and their purpose from the beginning was “put one of our cars in every dang garage in America”. So I guess, in terms of market positioning, they at least are already where they should be.

    Into this comes the enigma of GMC. On one hand, they sold fleet-grade work trucks for a long time, and may still. On the other, they’re trying to differentiate themselves from Chevrolet by being more luxurious. GM is the only major car manufacturer to sell luxury light trucks under a separate label, but the problem is, both Cadillac and Buick already sell luxury light trucks very similar to GMC’s, on the same platforms to boot, and now Chevy is moving the Silverado upmarket as well.

    The solution to me also has to start with Cadillac. They have to move upmarket, and I mean UPmarket. The crest hast to MEAN something again. In my opinion, Bentley and Rolls-Royce would be the correct long-term targets from the brand – but with how hard Cadillac got hit by the Great Cheapening, it will be a long, hard road back to that level.

    That would free up Buick to become the German-fighter, in the process giving it space to differentiate itself from both Chevy and Cadillac.

    Chevy is, again, about where they should be – except they need to stop “luxurying” their light trucks. That’s just going to squeeze GMC out of existence.

    That leaves GMC, who should sell light trucks on Buick’s (new) level. Buick should not operate in the light truck space at all, unless GM stops selling crossovers under the GMC label entirely and restricts them to body-on-frame/natively-RWD “real” trucks.

    That leaves the question of whether any of GM’s dead brands could return under this structure. Oldsmobile, I would say no. Even if we spread things out by freeing up Cadillac to reach for the brass ring, there just wouldn’t be room for another mid-luxury brand anymore. Saturn never really did anything Chevy couldn’t have; with different marketing they could have been a sporty “youth” brand about 15-20 years ago but that concept only ever half worked with Scion anyway. That leaves Pontiac, which could fit between Chevrolet and Buick by combining Chevrolet luxury/comfort technology with Buick performance technology – but I’m not sure if a “cheap speed” brand would fly in today’s market.

    • Hi Chuck,

      Given GM – all of it – has about 17 percent of the market – I’d winnow it down to Chevy and Cadillac, with Cadillac moving very uptown – as you suggest. There’s just not much difference anymore (regardless of brand) between a $35,000 anything and a $50,000 (or even $70,000) something else, in terms of luxury. They all have leather, all the power accessories, sunroofs, good stereos, etc. The differences are fine, if they exist at all. To make a real difference, cost must be no object. I am thinking of made-to-order cars in every way. The customer comes in and picks from a range of a la carte possibilities and the car is built to spec. It must have notable features unavailable in other, mass-produced cars. It must be exclusive beyond mere price. It must be a car unlike others, that people admire but very few can lay hands on.

      That is what Cadillac once was and could be again. Let Chevy be the volume brand, as it ought to be. Let Cadillac sell a few extremely impressive, “drool” cars… and that will help sell more Chevys and return Cadillac to what it was.

      GMC is a Potemkin facade. It sells well because Cadillacs don’t and because Chevys are uglier. But they’re all the same, essentially – so it’s absurd to sell the same thing – and market the same thing – through three different brands and dealership chains. Buick should have been euthanized ten years ago.

      • Making Cadillac a coachworks builder would be amazing! Really push the edge of manufacturing with 3D printers and advanced hydro-forming, use it as a skunkworks for new ideas that could trickle down to the Chevy line, even sponsor a race team for bleeding edge research and marketing.

  2. The only reason to get a Gay Man’s Cruiser over a Chevy is because they butchered up the face of the Silverodriguez, among other things.

    Part of me thinks it was intentional, to justify the two being virtually the same truck skin deep, though it could just because the Aspiring Sex & the City reboot star figures most customers are chumps and would buy it based on brand loyalty to begin with.

    Also, only Caddy that ever appeals to me is the CTS-V/ATS-V Coupe, and that’s simply because they’re Americana competitors to Ze Germans. That said, if you can’t row your own gears, then whats the point?

    • I was lucky enough to have owned, in the late 80s, a 1971 white coupe de Ville, with a 472. It had 345 HP, and 500 ft/lb of torque and was the most elegant beast I’ve ever owned or driven. It rolled as smoothly at 20mph as it did at 120mph. And when you gassed it hard, the four barreled carbs opened up like Wagners Ride of the Valkyries, crossed with a vacuum cleaner under the hood, and it broke tire traction at will. I had the misfortune of being a poor college student while I owned it, so feeding and caring for the chariot was costly and difficult. Any riders helped feed the beast with gas money. I still look longingly at online ads for such rides, and intend on picking one up in the next few years during the coming depression. Good memories and better cars than todays tin cans.

      • Hi Saxons!

        Growing up, one of my best memories is of my parents’ ’74 Olds 98, which had the Rocket 455 under the hood. I can still picture the engine compartment today. This car was the first car I ever “worked on” – in that my 9-year-old self crawled up on top of the engine and spun off the wingnut to have a look at the Quadrajet underneath. I was hooked from that day on.

  3. It all comes down to what the market will bear and how educated that market is. Well, not all, it also comes down to one-upping the Joneses.

    I mean, why not just just make payments in perpetuity? On rapidly depreciating disposable (see smartphones, etc.) transportation devices?

    Everyone else is doing it.

    Just like with the Sickness Kabuki.

    A complete lack of individuality except for minor differences (which “style” of mask you’d like to wear, which mechanically identical but looking slightly different melted jellybean shape would you like to drive around in?).

    Moo.

    Badge engineering was never more than a band aid for a slowly hemorrhaging series of products which were greenlit by folks who retired in comparative luxury to the average American, blissfully aware they had won a shell game nobody else knew they were playing.

    Want a 2 door personal luxury coupe? GM had 4 versions of the G body platform (Cutlass, Monte Carlo, Grand Prix and Regal). At least those had some individuality, compared to the crud they make today.

    And now a lot of those elder G Body customers are eligible for social security, which is anything but secure.

    Built note this similarity: there’s a ~1% increase in social security coming- which amounts to 20 bucks a month, pre-tax.

    Now, retired folks don’t have to eat generic brand dog food, they can opt for brand name Alpo.

    Bling Bling.

    • **”there’s a ~1% increase in social security coming”**

      Awww, that’s only for the white fogies! Nigs’ll be doing just fine with reparations for damages they never personally suffered. Maybe the white oldsters can go to the hood and beg for money from the homies as they drive by in they new Escalades (Who else buys those things?!) -“Will shit myself for Geritol or $5”.

  4. Today’s GM is the result of letting accountants and personnel run the company instead of car guys.

    It’s amazing they haven’t run the company out of business,,,,,,,, oh wait, they did! Thanks to Uncle and our tax dollars we get to watch this sh*t storm continue.

  5. “Because luxury has been made standard, regardless of label.”

    No kidding…my nearly 15-year-old Suburban has leather, heated seats, backup camera, satellite radio, etc.

    So why bother buying an Escalade?

  6. Caddy lost it with the Cimarron back in the 80’s, a Chevy Cavalier by any other name. You would have thought they learned something from that fiasco, but no, they did not. They tried to Euro it with rebadged Opels (not necessarily a bad thing), and failed in marketing. Now, what is a Caddy? I could not tell you.

    • I remember when I was about 12 years old in 1985 and at a fast food place with my dad remarking to him, on seeing a Cimmaron out in the parking lot, “look at that poor-man’s Cadillac out there!”. He shushed me and reminded me that whoever was driving it was sitting in the restaurant with us and that I should keep that to myself.

      That’s it – that’s my Cimmaron memory. 🙂

      • I picked up SO many Cimmaroons for junk in the 90’s! Every time I’d load one up, I’d just keep silently screaming to myself: “Why would anyone buy one of these? What the hell were they thinking?!”. There was nothing at all luxurious or “Cadillac feeling” about them…. They weren’t just dolled-up Cavaliers- they were badly dolled-up Cavaliers. They always reminded me of a first generation Hyundai I once picked up, which someone had tried to luxurify….by adding a vinyl roof!

    • Crusty; When I was a kid with a paper rout in the 70s Cadillac had a little econobox called the Seville. It was such a joke- a little Chevy 4 door with 11 badges on it – just so you don’t forget it’s a Cadillac. To me that was the beginning of the end of the brand. I grew up with Cadillacs that were 19 feet long and almost 7 feet wide. 71-76 Eldorados that had a hood so large we called then the “prominade deck” . They could smoke the front tires and embarrass 289 Mustangs. What a let down to see that turd Seville in the same driveway as the owner’s other Caddy- a black ’73 Eldo. It was embarrassing to see them together. It felt like a mean prank played on us by the still venerable GM.

      • Yep, that Caddy 475 in the Eldorado for example, or even the Eldo itself, longitudinal FWD with a silent chain drive Turbo-Hydramatic. Wow. That’s a Caddy! Mind rotting low end torque with style and luxury. Even beat the 60’s Chrysler Imperials with their 440’s. Nothing Lincoln had could touch a Caddy back in the day. Those Cinnabons and later extruded-from-the-Chevy-tube Caddies were pathetic.

        Now? What is a Caddy?

  7. I remember when GMC made real TRUCKS! They even made a big rig, the Astroliner. Why don’t they get back to that?

    I don’t know which if their luxury divisions they should keep. I can’t see GM dumping Buick, because they’re big in China; the Chinese want Buicks.

    • Me too, in the 1960s GMC pickups had leaf rear springs instead of coils like the Chevy, plus the real truck engine V-6 was available.

      I had a C/50 with the 305 V-6 and though it wasn’t fast, it had a LOT of torque.

      • Jason, I always wondered (back in the day) how people who owned GMC Jimmys, Caballeros, etc. felt when they had to take their vehicles to the GMC stealership for warranty service. I mean, it always struck me as funny how anytime ya’d pass a GMC lot, ya’d see a few stray little consumer vehicles parked there amongst all of the big trucks. They’d just look so out of place.

        Must’ve been even worse for people who owned International Scouts in the 70’s. I wouldn’t know though, as I never seemed to have ever passed any IH lots.

        • Morning, Nunz!

          Cadillac – GM – displayed its contempt for its customers when it repackaged the Cavalier and marketed it as a “Cadillac.” How stupid did they think people are? Apparently, very. Yeah… I’ll pay twice the cost of a Cavalier to own a . . . Cavalier. But look! It has thicker carpet and a different grille! It has “Cadillac” badges… !

          And they ask me why I drink.

          • Hi Ya Eric!
            What killed me, was that there literally was no difference between a Cimmaroon and a Cavalier- as you say- except for very small things; So they looked and felt JUST like Cavaliers.

            I had always thought that one of the things about Cadillacs, was that they were distinctive. A gigantic De Ville or Eldo comes down the street, and even if you know nothing about cars, you KNOW that that’s a Caddy!

            Now Caddys and Lincolns and Benzes are no longer distinctive. Their performance and quality are not only not exceptional anymore, in most cases…but they’re often sub-par. I don’t get it! What exactly are they selling anymore?

            I like too, how Cadillac just threw away a good part of it’s business by no longer offering platforms which are appropriate for limos and hearses- a sector they once entirely dominated.

            Theutter ineptitude of these corps just astounds me…and yet they’re still in busy-ness…getting tax-funded bailouts; and the execs who make these awful decisions are handsomely rewarded, and go on to ruin other companies…….

            A perfect illustration of the fact that this world is SERIOUSLY messed up.

            A brief history of the decline of Cadillac:
            Seville.
            4-6-8.
            HT-4100
            Cimmaroon
            Eldorado becomes Toronado clone.
            Norstar.

        • From what I remember, it couldn’t rev at all and was designed more as an agricultural pump than an automotive engine. Someone tried to stick one in a pickup truck; they had to lengthen the frame to make it fit and the result had a top speed of a little over 50 MPH because of the low redline.

          The GMC large V6 it was based on is not really a hot rod engine either; something to do with the valves being prone to break at high RPM and better replacements being difficult to find.

          Granted, with modern aftermarket technology and the resources of a high-end engine builder behind you, you could probably do something amazing with one of those.

      • Hi Jason,

        I’ll raise you! Have you ever seen a V16 Cadillac from the ’30s? I was fortunate enough to get to drive one. But looking at the engine, with its porcelainized manifolds, was enough by itself. It sounded like a muffled tommy gun…

  8. “Cadillac … hardly makes sedans at all – literally.”

    Whereas sedans are about all that Tesla makes. Elon’s been teasing the Cybertruck since the Obama administration, but like a carrot tied on a pole ahead of a mule, it just keeps receding as the slow-witted animal lunges for it.

    Next Tuesday the GMC Hummer EV is to be ‘revealed,’ whatever that means. (Look for telltale cables running underneath the chassis.) Hummer never achieved substantial sales, and was cancelled for a good reason. Now resurrecting a failed brand with electrification is supposed to succeed? YEAH, RIGHT!

    Talk about great timing for an EV launch — PG&E is preparing to cut the lights to 162,000 Californians in 24 counties in its latest effort to keep strong winds from knocking down live wires and igniting wildfires, reports Bloomberg.

    Gonna be tough to flee them fires when your Hummer battery is stone flat. “Don’t Venezuela My California,” as the bumper sticker reads. But it’s too late.

    Once you’ve gone Third World, it’s no easy task to restart an advanced economy.

  9. The answer to their problems is surely to hire more PR bitches to the force. That’ll fix a car company.

    Toyota needs to hire some PR women now. Who wants to be number one at the cost of chauvinism?

    • More PR Bitches- but only if they are balanced by HR Grrlz… and rainbow hued managers. Got to show those uppity white supremacists who do the work who’s boss.

  10. Ahhh seeing the picture of that 472 brings back memories of my 68′ Sedan Deville. That thing would out run a lot of muscle cars and floated like ship.

    It had leather seats AC, power windows, seats and cruise. Sure as hell wasn’t a re-badged Bel-aire of its era, most of the mechanical components were uniquely Cadillac.

    What we see these days. Body panels and trim package add $20,000.

    Makes me miss that ole sled.

  11. What the hell is an XT6? CTX? XTS? SUX?

    I know what a Coupé de Ville is. I know what an Eldorado is. Heck, I even know what an Escalade is. For a marketing company they’re not doing a very good job of telling us what they’re selling. I know they want to compete with the German manufacturers and their model numbering. But the Germans at least follow some pretty clear logic when it comes to their product lines, and don’t change them ever 10 years. If they’re thinking that the focus group testing showed using names was stodgy or old fashioned, maybe they could explain why Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Chevrolet, FCA, Toyota, Hyundai and everyone else is able to sell cars with names, some of which have been around for a century.

    I was behind one of whatever their small SUVs are last week. It actually looked kinda high tech, with the long and narrow LED taillights, and didn’t have that “fat lady bent over in the garden” look to the hatch. Seems to me they should make electric vehicles under the Cadillac brand, especially considering the people who might buy such a beast will likely have the infrastructure (and other vehicles) available to support such a product.

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